This review originally appeared in The Washington Post.
The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things
By JT LeRoy
Reviewed by G. Beato
Will we ever see Bob Dole leering in geriatric ardor at literary gamine JT LeRoy as the latter shakes his moneymaker in a Britneylicious tribute to Pepsi? Well, who knows? Pop commerce makes for strange bedfellows these days, and LeRoy already stands as Britney's dark doppelganger, the sexualized child as taboo commodity taken to its lurid, logical conclusion.
Last year, the 21-year-old author published a semi-autobiographical novel called "Sarah." Funny, explicit, inventive, and almost courtly in its economic lyricism, the book tells the story of Cherry Vanilla, a cross-dressing 12-year-old boy who turn tricks at truck stops and aspires to be the most famous whore in West Virginia.
Now, LeRoy is back with "The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things," a collection of "loosely connected autobiographical stories" which cover similar terrain - a boy's volatile relationship with his abusive prostitute mom. Compared to his first book, it's a less fanciful, more documentarian effort: in fact, publicity materials describe it as "journal entries from [LeRoy's] past," most of which were written when he was still in his mid-teens.
In other words, these stories are LeRoy's demo tapes. Plodding at times, with an uneven mix of closely observed details and overarching vagueness, "Heart" is not nearly as accomplished as "Sarah" is. But like those old Star Search clips of Britney that show an obviously driven nine-year-old aping her elders with unnerving proficiency, it does offer an interesting look at an evolving talent.
In the book's first story, "Disappearances," an 18-year-old girl named Sarah plucks her 4-year-old son Jeremiah from his happy foster family. "They don't want you no more," she lies to him, and from there it's all down hill. She tells him the cops want nail him to a cross. She abandons him in her car to go have sex with a stranger. She encourages that stranger to brutally whip him after he wets the bed.
LeRoy is a precocious crafstmen: in the nine stories that comprise the rest of the book, he elaborates on the themes (abuse, abandonment, violence as an expression of love) that he introduces in the first. Sarah graduates from easy pick-up to prostitute, from pills and alcohol to heroin, and she ditches Jeremiah so often that it sometimes seems as if she's able to exit without actually ever having returned from her last departure.
Meanwhile, Jeremiah is questioning his gender. "Men like girls, not boys," Sarah counsels, and she often introduces him as her sister rather than her son. When he meets a young girl prostitute in the story "Lot Lizards," he tells her he wants to trick too. He sees the attention his mom gets from men. He knows that sex is the most reliable currency available to him and that being a girl makes that currency more valuable; he wants to sell himself to prove he's worth something.
Eventually, he dresses up in his mom's lingerie and seduces one of her boyfriends. And guess what - it does not go well. Because "Heart" shows such relentless allegiance to the most horrible and sensational moments of its protagonist's life, LeRoy ends up facing the challenge that pornographers face: when you start with a climax, what do you do for a second act? In one story, Sarah's spurned boyfriends rapes Jeremiah. In another, Sarah burns his penis with a car lighter. By the time she's throwing rocks at his head in an insane effort to impress a Death Valley park ranger, "Heart" has become black comedy, but it's hard to say if the effect is intentional or not.
Still, that's not the worst of it. The worst is that it just gets kind of dull and unrevealing. Characters never evolve beyond caricature: the adults in "Heart" are there only to violate Jeremiah, and he's there only to be violated. And, ultimately, you have to wonder - if "Heart" is indeed a record of LeRoy's actual life, was there ever a moment when he wasn't being abused or defiled? LeRoy is obviously smart and he knows how his story plays. Wounded, vulnerable, pliant, debauched - who can resist that?
Not Gus Van Sant, or Dennis Cooper, or any of the other celebrity mentors whom LeRoy has attracted. On his self-produced website, LeRoy bills himself as "JT LeRoy, Hot Young Author," an ironic crack that's telling too: like Britney, he seems very willing to participate in the culture industry's efforts to sell him, in whatever ways are deemed most salable. And so far, it's working great. Movie deals are in the works. TV deals are in the works. If LeRoy can follow "Heart" with a book that he wrote when he was even younger and hotter and more exploited, maybe there's even a Pepsi commercial in his future.
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